Old Frontiers: Antiquities
By Daniel Rezendes on April 23rd, 2008 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Hey, remember these?
Arabian Nights was a big hit, and Magic rode its initial wave of popularity into 1994. Richard Garfield's college buddies, who'd helped him create the original game, spent some months not only working on its second expansion, but also on its first—and many say, still its best—storyline.
The Brothers' War is something like the creation myth of Magic back stories (or at least, the last chapter of the creation myth), and not simply because it was the first tale told on Dominaria. Every subsequent set that took place on Dominaria, to this day, has been dealing with the fallout from this conflict. Two artificer brothers, charismatic Mishra and logical Urza, stumble upon two halves of an ancient artifact. Their mutual jealousy drives them apart and eventually leads to a war which devastates a continent, annihilates an island paradise, and throws the world into a centuries-long ice age. Thousands of years later, Dominarians would still use their names to curse each other. Neat!
And...that's about all anyone knew at the time. This is long before sets had novel tie-ins (there were books, but they were mostly generic fantasy with random Magic terminology thrown in), but there was an attempt made to tell this story—in the form of comic books. Comic tie-ins continued up through Homelands (with a brief revival around Tempest block) but never garnered enough popularity to be very profitable.
So, assuming you didn't have the comic books available (a fair assumption), and remembering this is before the internet took over our lives, all anyone had with which to piece the story together were the cards themselves. And—whether this was intentional or not—this worked brilliantly for Antiquities. The flavor was all in past-tense with a recurring motif of discovering ancient secrets, one clue at a time...just as players put together the story. Who was this Ashnod person? Where did Lat-Nam fit in? It was like the players themselves were archaeologists, uncovering the history of this past war even as we busted open 8-card packs.
Oh, yeah, the cards.
Sorry for story-enthusing there, but that really is the most lasting memory most have of the set. That isn't to say it wasn't innovative at all—far from it! Merely that, like Arabian Nights, the innovations are so taken for granted now—and it is so long before most of us started playing—that it is easy to forget how new it all was at the time.
The biggest innovation of all was the concept of a set theme. The rules were the same and every color did the same things they were supposed to; but here, just for one set, there was another factor to prioritize that changed the way the game was played without permanently changing the game. The theme, of course, was artifacts, and boy did the set embrace them.
A quick glance at the spoiler will make this clear: of 85 unique cards in the set, 44 were artifacts. This is a fairly heavy commitment, though Mirrodin block would later have a higher percentage of artifacts. But, judging from the spoiler, Antiquities was actually the most theme-focused set ever printed. Of the 41 non-artifact cards in the set, only three did not have the
word 'artifact' in their rules text—Strip Mine and the Urzatron. Four non-basic lands that produced colorless mana—and three of them designed to work together to create a lot of it, ostensibly to power out artifacts. One of them even had the word 'artifact' in the flavor text!
Though players at the time didn't complain (probably. This predates me by a bit over a year), it is obvious why R&D never focused so strongly on a theme again. To use modern design jargon, it was too parasitic—too many of the cards were just pointless outside of an artifact-heavy environment. But this was something the game had to learn by doing, and they at least picked a deep enough theme to start with, which has been revisited once already.
So, what about them artifacts, then?
Antiquities was, of course, more than simply printing a crapload of new artifacts—it was important to do clever new things with artifacts as well. And there were quite a few innovations which would later be explored further in some of those silly Mirrodin sets that nobody heard of.
Arabian Nights was the first set to use a tweaked keyword—Desertwalk. Antiquities was the second...almost. Argothian Treefolk and Argothian Pixies were obviously trying to evoke Protection from Artifacts, while Artifact Ward downright spelled the ability out—but for whatever reason, the designers shied away from just using the phrase. I'm not sure if artifacts were deemed too confusing (or, more likely, that Protection was), but it would take until Urza's Legacy to see it actually printed.
Antiquities also took the opportunity to explore some possibilities with artifacts. The beloved Ornithopter appeared, the first creature ever to cost . Players loved the thing and didn't even exactly know why. Affinity wasn't around yet, and there wasn't any particular way to abuse it other than, arguably, Unholy Strength or something. But R&D learned that players loved getting something for free—while players slowly learned that, while free is cool, it helps if the card actually did something.
Something like, for example, milling your opponent. And if this was before March of 1994, you'd be asking what I meant—because Millstone appeared in this set, and introduced the concept of aggressive decking to the game. This was not only a new concept, but a milestone (heh) for early control players—no longer would they have to stoop to winning through creature combat! They could simply keep the board clean and slowly whittle the enemy's deck away. Like most early control strategies and cards, Millstone came to be loved and/or despised by opposing groups of players—but so long as the players care enough to feel strongly, it's a good thing.
Another new—if less popular—development was the concept of Equipment.
We wouldn't have this..."But VestDan! Equipment didn't come around until Mirrodin!" I know, and I'm really getting tired of hearing that word. But note: I said the concept of Equipment. Tawnos's Weaponry and Ashnod's Battle Gear built upon Flying Carpet from the previous set to evoke a creature picking something up and taking it into combat. While this style was continued for some time, it was eventually abandoned once it became clear it didn't make sense and also sucked. Eh, live and learn.
Other threads started spinning in the set. Several cards—Ashnod's Altar, Sage of Lat-Nam, Triskelion, Tetravus, and the then-reviled Atog were some early examples of cards that converted a non-mana resource into an effect—or even a different resource. The two big artifact creatures weren't quite the first cards to manipulate +1/+1 counters, but they were the first to use them to affect the board, and not simply for bookkeeping.
Ashnod's Altar in particular was an incredibly important card for early Johnnies, fueling many of the earliest infinite combos. Sure, there were synergies before, but this was the first engine that was allowed to stand (previous engines involving Basalt Monolith and Relic Bind resulted in subtle erratum, while the Altar was simple enough to let stand and—in Chronicles—was available to new generation of players).
Land of Milk and Glistening Oil.
And then, there were the lands. Like Arabian Nights, there were quite a few new non-basic lands in the set. Not only were they innovative, but WotC decided, hey, since the basic set gave all the basic lands multiple arts, shouldn't non-basic lands get the same thing? And thus, every land in Antiquities had three or four arts. This was a mixed blessing for collectors—while having a Mishra's Factory for each season was neat, trying to explain which version of Strip Mine you needed was next to impossible.
But what awesome lands they were! The aforementioned Urzatron has been reprinted multiple times, most famously in Chronicles, where it seemed like every pack contained seven of each. Strip Mine was reprinted in 4th Edition before they realized it was crazy. Even the 'fixed' version, Wasteland, proved too powerful for many formats.
But not as powerful as Mishra's Workshop. The idea was simple—increased mana production, but severe limitations for it. While this concept reappeared on occasion, the boost was too big and the limitation not sufficiently, uh, limiting. This is also only legal in Vintage, and it was for some time restricted there. Now that it is unrestricted, blazing fast Stax variants have arisen...which may or may not be a good thing. Vintage is, after all, a bizzarro world where right is wrong, up is down, blue is green, and only Vulcans know how to love.
…*cough* that kinda got away from me there, so let's wrap this up, because there's one final enduring piece of the game Antiquities gave us—manlands. Mishra's (curiously mobile) Factory. Another great tool for—and against—control, it was a wonderful threat and defensive card that cost no mana (in fact, it was a mana source itself) and couldn't be countered. The Assembly-Worker pumping made it even better for the defense (and fun in multiples), but this was probably too complex of a card to show off a new mechanic. Even now, it's still the most complex creature-land.
Feldon's Cane - In the same set that we got Millstone, we got an answer to it. This was heavily played back in the day, when games lasted a long time and people were terrified of decking. This card was also noteworthy in that it removed itself from the game and wasn't an ante card.
Ivory Tower and The Rack - Both played off the much-feared Black Vise. All three have seen play at various times, but the Tower was perhaps the scariest of the three, once it was coupled with The Skull.
Vest of Show.
Triskelion has always been a favorite of mine...but only the Antiquities picture. I just love its goofy eyes, its smokestack, and the mental image of those mecha-arms firing off as missiles, leaving a rather pointless 1/1 tower butting around the battlefield.
The next Magic release after Antiquities had no innovation at all—other than the fact of its existence. Revised (known to some, retroactively, as Third Edition) was the new base set for Magic. Where Unlimited was simply a white-bordered rerun of Alpha and Beta (First Edition,) Revised included new cards from the first two expansions—which was very helpful, as Revised had a much much much larger print run than Arabian Nights and Antiquities. But, more (or at least as) importantly, it also removed many of the cards from earlier base sets, including the iconic Power Nine. This concept of an adapting core game has stuck with Magic ever since (though it took up through Sixth or Seventh before it was really systematized), and Revised was arguably the origin of the concept of rotating environments. Even though the game was only about a year old, WotC recognized that players would not always have access to every card ever printed—particularly not with the small print-runs of the time. While the game certainly wasn't old enough to have a separate 'eternal' format yet, the seeds were quietly—perhaps accidentally—sown here.
The artifact-heavy Antiquities also showed there was a major problem with the game rules: artifacts didn't make a damned lick of sense. Up through this point, there weren't simply artifacts and artifact creatures--there were continuous artifacts, mono artifacts, poly artifacts, and artifact creatures, as determined by their functionality. Artifact creatures worked the same, but the others all had their own rules--continuous artifacts had some effect on the board, unless they somehow became tapped; poly artifacts had activated abilities that could be used as many times as you could pay for them; and mono artifacts could only be used once a turn and became tapped when you used them.
This was, of course, stupid. I suppose it makes some sort of sideways sense--creatures tapped when you used them, so did some artifacts; others were strong enough to get multiple uses, and some could be turned on and off. But all the extra junk on the type line was only confusing. And besides, Revised brought us one of the most important innovations of all, at least where templating is concerned: the tap symbol. Sure, it was just a sideways 'T' at the time, but that's a heck of a lot better than "Tap this creature to..." Heck, just look at this:
Pretty big difference, eh?
Also noteworthy was the concept of reprinting cards in a new environment. Antiquities cards played much differently in the general Revised card pool than they did in a heavy Antiquities environment—-particularly the much-reviled (at the time) Atog. This also had ramifications on secondary market values, which was a much more significant aspect of the game's popularity at the time.
Particularly after what came next…
Next time (whenever that is): Legends
By Daniel Rezendes on April 23rd, 2008 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Daniel Rezendes
Journeyman Wordsmith and Magic player for over a decade. In recent years, I've stopped sucking at writing, which is always a plus. Would certainly not say no to a job offer from WotC's continuity department.